Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

God, Government and the State, Part One

Jan 10, 2012

With the US Presidential elections starting to take shape, the general issues of religion and politics, and church and state, once again come to the fore. But as is often the case, there tends to be much confused thinking about all this – and I refer here to Christian thinking.

There seems to be a lot of confusion and uncertainty as to the role of government, the place of politics, and the function of civil authority. So let me here offer five brief and general remarks about what the biblical data teaches. The first thing to note is that government is God’s idea.

But before going any further, let me state that it is important to keep in mind the difference between government and the state. The state, or civil government, is just one form of government, or rulership. God of course is the governor of the universe. But he delegates authority in various ways. Self-government is the most important form of government, but in a fallen world this must be supplemented.

Thus God has instituted the family wherein parents govern or rule their children; the church, where church leaders lead or govern the flock; and the state, where civil leaders govern the citizenry. All these are God-given forms of government, and all are needed to promote order and administer justice in a fallen world.

As Gary DeMar has written, “the state, which is best described as civil government, has been given authority to maintain order in society, to punish the evildoer, and to promote the good (Genesis 9:5-6; Romans 13:1-6; 1 Peter 2:13-14). Politics, then, is not a necessary evil; it’s necessary because of evil (Genesis 4:4-15, 23-24; 9:5-7).”

Thus anarchy, and some extreme forms of libertarianism, can never be an option for the biblical Christian. Government is God’s idea, and to balk at government is to balk at God. Of course this must be teased out as well. For example, there are times when to obey the state means to disobey God. At that point the believer must go with God. But that I discuss elsewhere:

Second, it is also true that government is not to take the place of God, as is so often the case with the secular left, and their emphasis on big government and coercive utopianism. Statism and an ever-expanding welfare state are not part of the biblical pattern. But that too I have discussed elsewhere, so I will not repeat myself here.

Third, the state must be kept in check – it must be limited. It is not absolute, and the Bible makes it clear that all civil government is to be restricted and not overstep its God-given boundaries. A classic Old Testament passage on this is Deuteronomy 17.

The context is Deut 16-18 which offers us an overview of four offices of authority: judge, king, priest, prophet. Simply having these various authority structures shows us the importance of the diffusion of power. Thus from early on in biblical history we see a clear separation or division of powers at work in ancient Israel.

As Chris Wright comments, “The clear distinction and separation of the different kinds of authority can be seen as a significant precursor of some of the principles of democratic government, especially the separation of powers. No single person could hold all four offices. None of the authorities is given supreme authority over the others. Certainly the king … does not appoint the others. . . . And the king, though the chief executive in the political sphere, has very explicit limitations set on his power.”

This stands in marked contrast to the absolute power other monarchs ordinarily enjoyed in the Ancient Near East. Only in Ancient Israel was there such a radical diminution of powers, with the constant reminder that Yahweh alone was the ultimate supreme authority.

Thus thinking of ancient Israel as simply a theocracy is rather misleading. Sure, Yahweh was Israel’s king, as he ultimately is everyone’s, and Israel had a special covenant relationship with God. But Yahweh worked through delegated authority. He instituted civil government and made clear it was to be a limited, restricted and diffused power structure. It was an early version of constitutional government.

But let me get back to the king himself. The section on kingship (17:14-20) is remarkable for a number of reasons in the way it puts checks and balances on the power of the king. As McConville comments, “A king in the ancient world was typically the chief executive in all departments of the life of a nation; here, the appointment of the king is not an absolute requirement, but subject to the demand of the people (17:14). It is the limitations placed on the king (17:16-20) that makes the laws on the administration of Israel so radical.”

What a stark contrast this picture of the king in Deuteronomy offers compared to other rulers in the ANE. And these principles of limited government continue throughout the Bible. As to the New Testament, let me just mention one passage. Jesus says two important things about government: it is of God, but it is limited in its jurisdiction.

This is made clear in Matt. 22:21 where Jesus says we are to respect and give honour both to God and to Caesar. Both authorities are to be obeyed, in their proper place. God of course is always the ultimate authority, but he has delegated authority to civil governments, something which we are to recognise and respect.

Fourth, it is clear that governments cannot save anyone, or produce innate righteousness. But that is not the purpose or function of civil government. Civil government exists to keep a check on evil, to maintain justice, and to prevent societies from degenerating into moral anarchy.

It was never intended to be a medium of evangelism or salvation. That is the job of the church. Thus governments cannot save or make a person righteous from the inside out. Instead it keeps evil in place, which in a fallen world is a tremendous social good. But it is the gospel which transforms individual hearts and lives.

Fifth, it must be noted that there is also a dark side, indeed a demonic side, to government. While the state has a place in God’s order, and while government is of divine origin, like everything in a fallen world, the state can become a tool of the enemy.

The dark side of the state is found especially in the apocalyptic literature, such as in Daniel and Revelation. One recalls the despotic Babylonian kings such as Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, found in the Book of Daniel. But his vision of the four beasts (world empires) in ch. 7 makes it clear that earthly dominion and power will always come to an end, and the true ruler will ultimately triumph.

The book of Revelation picks up on these themes and refers to the wicked evil worldly system as Babylon in quite negative terms. This false religious, political, economic and cultural system is completely opposed to God and his people, and it will meet the same fate as seen by Daniel.

Just as the Israelites had to live under ungodly Babylonian rule in Daniel’s day, so too believers today live under the wicked world systems called “Babylon the Great”. This evil world system will finally be destroyed (Rev. 18), and the rejoicing because of its downfall will be great (Rev 19).

Thus for the most part it can be seen that government is a biblical concept which believers need not shy away from or be dismissive of. In Part Two of this article I will look in some detail at an objection sometimes raised against what has just been said here:

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6 Responses to God, Government and the State, Part One

  • The whole point of my view is that for government to be sanctified by God it needs to be governing in a Godly way. I.e. it’s decisions must be morally correct in all things for the good of the people. We cannot allow governments to inflict evil upon it’s citizens and say it comes from God for God can do no evil against “his” people, yes he will chastise as a parent chastens his/her children but that is not evil that is correction against evil. If your child asks for some bread will you give him a rock?
    There were good Kings in the past and also bad ones and God took away that authority from those that did not govern according to his ways.
    Mathew 22 v16.
    Here the Pharisees representatives say unto Jesus We know thou carest not for any man and regardeth not the person of men?
    Jesus was being tempted by the hipocrites.
    Regarding the coin and the superscription of Caesar on it and regarding the tribute. Jesus said render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and unto God the things that are Gods.
    The two greatest commandments are Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy mind and with all thy soul. The second is that thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
    On these Two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. End of story.
    Many governments think they are Gods yet God says thou shalt have no other God but me.
    Many Governments are now educating children and turning them away from God and his creation. Many State Governments ban any open description of Gods commandments.
    The scribes and the Pharisees were in a sense the government of the Jewish people subordinate to a degree of Roman governance. Yet Jesus said The scribes and the pharisees sit in Moses seat. And he says all that they bid you observe, But do not ye after their works for they say and do not. That is compliance not respect.
    They love the uppermostt rooms at feasts and to be called by men Rabbi. But be ye not called Rabbi for one is your master even Christ and ye his brethren. Then we have the Woes of the Scribes and Pharisees but in the end he accuses them of forgetting the weightier matters of the law which is mercy, faith Judgement which they ought to have done but left undone.
    Today we have pharmaceuticals that have supposedly patended (government approved) over 22 human DNA of the Human Genome made by God, not man and certainly not an invention as required by patent that is evil even
    Blaspheme and many will blaspheme against God in the last days.
    The Christians sufferred horrific death (by choice) in the arena because they would not give up their faith as Caesar (the government) demanded,
    Today by indoctrination and pressures to forget this so-called biblical fairytale the government is trying to do it all again. Should we OBEY that government I think not. In Mathew 24 vs 13 He that shall endure until the end shall be saved.
    I think the view that governments should be obeyed
    in all things is flawed and a catalyst for total subserviance of an ever increasing evil.
    In Jesus’s time the Pharisees and priests had to abide by the instructions of the Torah which in true terms would have been righteous. Yet even though they hid behind righteousness or contrived righteousness they weren’t always so dilligent as to practice what they preached.
    To clarify this and to demistify this the veil of the temple was rent for the people had been kept blind by sly words and inuendo.
    Some catholics were burnt at the stake for simply possesing a bible or even knowing a chapter from the word of God. The church in those days as unrighteous as it was was very much a part of government yet the people could not even use the love of Christ and his words as a defense without being cast as an Heretic.
    We must do what is right and good towards our God and our neighbours through Jusus Christ. If people stopped fighting for those unjustly persecuted by an evil system and if all good men stayed silent then we are surely Lost.
    No I do not agree with respecting all governments especially those that have attained positions by a corrupt process with the aid of so many corrupt supporters for their own selfish ends. If they could ever govern according to Gods word then they might receive some respect. But now they are doing Satans work and one day the man of perdition will be revealed (for his time is short) then we will know that if we succumb we will have been deceived.
    Woe unto the world for satan has been cast down. The very Elect must stand firm and so too must WE. Lest we also fail.
    Dennis Newland

  • In Britain we have a fast-approaching anti–government. Laws are being introduced that will take away self-control, restraint and self-governance and instead enforce sexual and moral anarchy. This is already being done by tearing down barriers that once protected marriage, family and children from outside forces.
    Our Home Secretary Teresa May has said “We are committed to taking action to tear down these barriers…….”
    My own Conservative gay MP, Conor Burns, has used precisely the same jargon when I raised my concerns about the queer, Stonewall actor, (Sir) Ian McKellen, being allowed to cruise around the nation’s schools, under the pretence of tackling homophobia. Mr Burns also said: “The government remains determined to take concerted action to tearing down barriers to equal opportunities…[ for the criminal underclass and perverts]”
    After less than two years in power, Mr Cameron is introducing laws that will effectively – in time – make it a criminal offence to defend marriage based upon Biblical principles. And whilst at present it is just about socially acceptable for heterosexual couples such as the present Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their wedding guests to having been asked during their wedding service whether there was any just cause or impediment as to why they should not be married …. all hell would break out if gays (and soon any one) were to be asked what objections someone might have to their “marriage of semen with excrement.”

    Christians must not impose their faith on others but equally Christians have a right to defend their families against the violence of tyrannical governments.

    I am pretty confident that a Christian off duty police man armed with a revolver, faced with his wife and children being threatened with violence would use it.

    ‘(Jesus)said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’ Luke 22:36
    Commentators have taken pains not to take this verse at its face value, but I believe Jesus meant what he said to be taken literally.

    David Skinner, UK

  • Did God sanctify Hitlers government or his dominion, Or Stalin’s evil reign, Or even the government of Sodom I think not, So many evil dictators and corrupt governments too many to mention were they all sanctified by our God??? I think not.
    Satan is here and all who love God and our Lord Jesus Christ are going to suffer and be tempted and must stand firm against his realm.
    Even Paul said when he quoted that we should obey authority had an over riding statement that Those in authority must do good in their authority and judgements for the first to apply.
    The statement that we must respect Governments because they are sanctified is a giant Furfy perpetuated by governments and people and sinister covens who want to keep the christians under control until all traces of our belief are bled out of the system. Then it will truly be Satans World.
    Regularly I see programs on Evolution on television mostly sponsored by the scientific community and our governments through the schools and now describing it as fact that we come from Monkeys because they have alledgedly found the missing pair of chromosomes/DNA/etc that form the ape sequence welded to gether in humans.
    Evolution is the development of anything to an improved state yet it Still cannot explain why a once self replicating living cell/insect/bird/plant or mammal took a giant step backward to require two genders to reproduce and what happened during the change over sequence one can only wonder. No thanks.
    Our religion and belief is under attack constantly from these people (scientist) who think they know everything yet constantly stand corrected as they jump from one theory to nrxt. As an added point thinly connected to this discussion I wish that people would remember that Darwing was not that bearded ancient and picture of wisdom that we constantly see published but a very young graduate?…On his first sea voyage when he put forward his contentious evolutionary “theory”. Of course we have similar DNA in many sections of our Genome these are the building blocks of the creator. Yet I could build a thousand different things from a very large box of Leggo’s yet none would be the same.
    As for governments being given holy dominion have we forgottent the Aztecs or the Olmecs or the Mayans etc etc.
    Did God not destroy an evil world and all it’s governments during the flood and then give us all the Noahide covenants to inspire us to live better lives??????

    Yes God has allowed satan a short time to wreak havoc in this world so that the good wheat (the good seed) those that can resist the temptations of the devil can be saved from the fate of the tares (the children of the evil one).

    Remember this. Jesus was offerred all the Kingdoms of the world both present and future as the bible says IN A MOMENT OF TIME if Jesus would just worhip Satan.
    Dennis Newland

  • Thanks Dennis
    I believe I address your concerns in my article, and speak to these various issues.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • “…Civil government exists to keep a check on evil, to maintain justice, and to prevent societies from degenerating into moral anarchy. …”
    Our “modern” secular humanist [and sadly this includes vast numbers of baal worshiping christians…] believes they know what evil is and they insist that their understanding of “evil” should be the order of the day.
    “[M]oral anarchy” is just one persons view – so they enegtically they seek to persuade – through the ballot box – the population – to support their view of morals – what you may think is “anarchy” is just your “bigoted view”.
    Phillip Ellery

  • “…Evolution is the development of anything to an improved state yet it Still cannot explain why a once self replicating living cell/insect/bird/plant or mammal took a giant step backward to require two genders to reproduce and what happened during the change over sequence one can only wonder. …”
    The Christophobic [homosexual] lobby loudly and violently disagrees!
    Phillip Ellery

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